By Brian Lafferty
February 8, 2013 (San Diego) – The press screening announcement for Side Effects read "Please note that due to the non-linear nature of this film, we will not let anyone into screenings of Side Effects if they arrive LATE.” The impression I got was that Soderbergh's last theatrical release - his final project is a Liberace biopic that will air on HBO later this year - would be a mind-bender like Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky or Christopher Nolan's Memento. I was wrong, but the publicity people were right to deny entry to latecomers. (Even if they didn't, I can't grasp how any critic could feel comfortable reviewing any movie they're late for. In many cases and for many reasons too irrelevant and lengthy to list, the first few minutes are a film’s most important.)
The most that’s nonlinear about Side Effects is its television drama-style opening in which the camera lingers around the aftermath of a horrific scene before the film flashes back to three months earlier. Emily's (Rooney Mara) life was turned upside down five years ago when her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) was sent to prison. Now he's being released. Suffering from a paralyzing anxiety disorder that induces suicidal tendencies (she smashes her car into a parking garage wall) she is prescribed a new drug called Ablixa. Eager to get better, she leaps at the opportunity, dismissing her psychiatrist’s warnings about the side effects.
The first third of the film concentrates on these nasty effects on Emily. You know those side effects you hear spelled out for you at length at the end of each commercial for the newest drug on the market? It's those come to life. Any person who has taken medication and experienced soul-sucking side effects like I have can relate in some way to Emily's downward spiral into deep depression and lethargy. I noted a persistent fogginess in the image, one that if by design aptly imparts her hazy and emotionally cloudy mental state. Thomas Newman's score uses bells and chimes to elicit uneasy reactions the same way William Friedkin employed Tubular Bells in The Exorcist.
Most movies I've seen about depressed people depict them wearing their sadness and despair on the outside like garish clothes. They know they're feeling miserable and they let everybody around them know it. In my experience, real depression is kept hidden underneath. When I've been depressed I tried to bury it deep inside out of shame and self-isolation, not wanting anybody - not even friends or family - to take a look. (Emily struggles at work, even arrives late, but can't bring herself to talk to her more than understanding boss.) I wanted to be left alone, not wanting people to see me. However, a huge part of me wanted to reach out, but I was too chicken. This trait is evident in the uneasy sessions between Emily and Dr. Banks (Jude Law).
Once the film arrives at the scene of the horrible event teased in the opening, the focus turns to Dr. Banks. (Owing to the film's never-ending twists and turns, I won't reveal what it is.) Hounded by the news media, he loses his job, and his medical license may be next. He becomes obsessed with finding the truth. It becomes one of those movies like Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (which in turn was inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up) about a man's self-destructive obsession with finding the truth. This obsession consumes Dr. Banks dearly. His wife takes the kid and deserts him. He drinks. Everything he sees – images, videos, articles, etc. – is a possible clue no matter how remote or far “out there.” His rational mind deteriorates into one he would have treated (presumably successfully) before this whole mess.
Watching this play out is witnessing a mastery of screenwriting and character development, and a remarkable piece of acting. This near self-destruction isn't that of a collision between two speeding cars. I liken it to an unstoppable fire that slowly consumes a city. The score by Newman that caused uneasiness and tenseness in the beginning now carries a new connotation here, a haunting and surreal air that befits Dr. Banks's borderline unhealthy preoccupation.
The screenplay by Contagion writer Scott Z. Burns twists and turns with surprise after surprise, twist after twist. It's almost cunning. I thought Side Effects was going to be a film about Emily and her struggles with anti-depressants. Then it became something else. Just when I got settled in again, it became a different type of film. I make this out to be a negative trait - it's very risky to switch narrative gears - but it works because each of these types of stories begin, end, and transfer organically and are executed with calculated precision by both the direction, writing, photography, and the acting.
Side Effects is now playing in wide release.
An Open Road Pictures release. Director: Steven Soderbergh. Screenplay: Scott Z. Burns. Original Music: Thomas Newman. Cast: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum. Running Time: 106 minutes. Rated R.